Most people, when they think of shaping the legs, resort to thinking about isometrics. Leg extensions. Leg presses. Maybe some half assed form of a squat in the Smith Machine rack. But frankly, these “exercises” are not going to illicit enough of a stimulus to generate a strong physical response in the legs. The exercises that REALLY work, the ones that build legs that are not only FUNCTIONALLY strong but incredible to LOOK at, are much more basic and less complex then standing on a bosu ball with one leg and your hands in the air.
You need to train athletically. There is a reason athletes look as incredible as they perform. Muscles that FUNCTION well tend to be muscles that are incredible to look at as well. Think about the legs of sprinters, football players, cyclists,and crossfitters. I guarantee you their legs look the way they do not from leg extensions and leg presses but from squats, deadlifts, and other basic barbell and dumbbell movements. This article details 5 of my personal favorite leg exercises which will not only help increase STRENGTH but also help boost the aesthetic appeal of your lower half as well.
Now, you could poll ten different trainers and get ten different responses for their top 5 leg exercises. I picked exercises that I feel not only build strength and power, but also are going to give you killer shape.
My five choices are:
Barbell Squats – to parallel or below
Single Leg Deadlifts
Barbell Good Mornings
Deficit Pyramid Deadlifts OR GHR (this was a close toss up)…. But since most people know what GHR are (glute ham raises) I’ll discuss Pyramid Deadlifts
This is (or should be) a no brainer, but I know people argue about whether the deadlift or the squat is superior. But regardless, I believe any leg program meant to gain strength, size, shape, and so forth should have squats as the foundation. And I mean true SQUATS, not smith machine squats or machine squats or leg presses or anything of that nature… in case you weren’t certain.
I ALSO mean squats to parallel, or below. If you Crossfit or train the Olympic lifts it would be to your benefit to engage in high bar back squats, which advocate an upright torso and a depth of BELOW parallel (similar to sitting in the hole of a snatch or clean). If you do NOT Crossfit or train the Olympic lifts then frankly I don’t see a need to go below parallel- hitting parallel will suffice. Parallel, by definition means the crease in which your thighs meet your abdomen drops below the top of your knee.
SINGLE LEG DEADLIFT:
The single leg deadlift (also called the one-legged deadlift) has been around circa 1940. It was originally used mostly as assistance work for the deadlift but it ALSO happens to be a killer hamstring blaster. I’ve been doing these for a while now and not only has it helped enhance my core stability and balance, but it’s also given me a much denser, stronger set of hamstrings.
While executing this movement takes some finesse and trial/error, once you’ve gotten the hang of it you will never, ever give the hamstring curl machine a second look again.
You can perform a single leg deadlift using most any weight-
- a barbell
- a pair of dumbbells
- a single dumbbell
- a pair of kettlebells
- a single kettlebell
- a sandbag, etc
If you google single leg deadlift I’m sure you’ll run into multiple variations. Feel free to try one or more and pick the ones that seems to work best for you. My personal favorite is to perform this using one big kettlebell.
You’ll find your core works hard to keep you stable, but also you’re going to have to contract the glute on the working leg VERY hard to keep from toppling over. This is part of what makes it such a killer hamstring and glute movement. I’ve found this deadlift variation to be MUCH easier on the low back then traditional deadlifts and I like that it’s single leg- because working the legs individually is as important as working them synonymously.
Single Leg Deadlift Demo:
Renegade Lunges are a football drill- and yes, they are as awesome as they sound. Most people call them limbo lunges and they originated from a guy named John Davies (football coach).
Most of us spend the majority of our leg training moving in the saggital plane (anterior to posterior). We spend very little time moving side to side. This can wind up creating muscular imbalances and weaknesses which in turn set you up at a greater risk for injury. So I really like to include some form of lateral movement in any leg training program.
To execute the renegade lunge you’re going to stand sideways near a bar or plank set somewhere between waist or chest level (depending on your ability), say a power rack pin. Squat down UNDERNEATH until your head is lower than the plank/barbell and push off the leg furthest from the plank/barbell like a speed skater. It’s basically a side lunge, underneath a plank. You can do it bodyweight only, but if you perform it holding a weight in front of your body trust me, your legs will burn. This is particularly amazing for leaning out and tightening the inner thighs- I’ve found it’s given me some amazing cuts when I’ve used in prep for figure shows. It also helps to develop lateral power, flexibility, and strength and, as I mentioned, helps balance out the abundance of front to back work most of us do in regards to our leg training.
Renegade Lunge Demo:
BARBELL GOOD MORNING:
I NEVER used to do good mornings, I guess because I struggled to move a lot of weight with them, and I was never really sure if I was executing them properly or not. But over the last few months I’ve become a HUGE advocate of good mornings, both as a supplemental exercise to squats and as a killer exercise to really add fullness and density to the hamstrings.
The key to good mornings is to not go too heavy (hello low back pain and form deterioration) and to focus on the movement as a POSTERIOR exercise. Tilt the hips back and squeeze the glutes throughout the movement. A good morning is NOT just bending over at the waist with a barbell. Think about pulling the hips back and really focus on the glutes and hamstrings. Don’t ever sacrifice form on these, so if that means you’re doing them using just a bare barbell, that’s fine.
Barbell Good Morning Demo:
I’m sure you’re thinking “what the hell is a pyramid deadlift”. I know I was when I was introduced to it. It’s Russian (seems most amazing strength training exercises are) and it’s sure to light your glutes on fire. It’s a squat and deadlift combination that is done by standing on two boxes and squatting down in a wide stance. It originated as a drill to teach perfect squat and deadlift form to beginners and I like using it for people who are new to squats or deadlifts. I also really love using it in the programming of my figure/bodybuilding/bikini competitors for shaping purposes.
The only way I know to do this movement well is to use a kettlebell and hold it between your legs. You could try a dumbbell but you’d need to hold JUST the one end of the dumbbell, grasping the middle of the dumbbell would cause the dumbbell to bump into your body and wouldn’t allow you full range of motion doing the exercise.
Pyramid deadlifts are easier than regular squats or deadlifts due to the location of the weight- balanced right below the muscles center of gravity, rather than in front (deadlift) or behind (squat). Because the weight distribution makes this movement easier, I find it lends itself well to higher reps without dealing with form deterioration.
Pyramid Deadlift Demo: